MARANA, Ariz. — The distinct, bell-shaped mountain rising above the Sonoran Desert northwest of Tucson holds a special power, say those who’ve spent time here — a magnetism that draws you in, sets you apart, even if only momentarily, from a difficult world, and perhaps even heals.
Named Safford Peak by early settlers, this protrusion of rock, scrub and cactus has beckoned visitors for centuries. For nearly 60 years, some of that land has been maintained as a place to hike the desert landscape, meditate, pray or just take time out from life.
That mystique drew me and my wife, Mary, to Sanctuary Cove, a spiritual retreat on the western edge of Marana, a sprawling Tucson suburb. We stayed at the property’s guest cottage, a small, modern structure with amazing views across the Tucson Basin from the front and a large patio in back jutting into the mountain desert.
We reserved for the night of a full moon, expecting moonlight and shadows, perfect for nighttime photography, on the towering saguaros, prickly pear and rocks. Nature gave us a different show. Sheets of rain from a brief afternoon monsoon blurred views of the nearby 3,563-foot peak. Hours later the clouds turned into a powerful storm to the east. Lightning illuminated the Santa Catalina Mountains like a strobe and yellow and white flashes lit up tall thunderheads.
We watched in awe from our cottage porch 17 miles away. We couldn’t hear thunder — just the staccato of crickets and a whispering breeze.
Sanctuary Cove’s website describes its mission as “providing a natural place of peace and unspoiled beauty” offering an opportunity to “‘draw apart’ from the intensity of today’s hectic lifestyle.” An entrance sign reads simply “A still place in a turning world.”
That mission has roots in centuries past, when indigenous tribes were believed to have visited, used and traversed the area. Today the property is operated by All Creeds Brotherhood, a non-profit founded by Elmer Staggs, a World War I veteran who came to Arizona in 1917 to recover from tuberculosis. He homesteaded a large desert parcel outside Tucson, later selling some of it, including 31 acres to the federal government for the adjacent Saguaro National Park. But he retained 80 acres for public use for hiking, meditation and religious services.
Over the years activities have included memorial services, photo shoots, weddings and other events. In addition to a small chapel, an amphitheater that seats several hundred people hosts an annual, non-denominational Easter sunrise service.
A labyrinth, built from desert rocks by former caretakers Chuck Koesters and Annie Bunker, encourages visitors to clear their minds and absorb the desert’s beauty as they walk the circular formation. Trails offer views of Tucson to the right and Marana below. Skilled hikers can tackle rock-faced “Sombrero Peak,” the name locals give Safford Peak.
Inspirational signs dot the trails. “It takes a long, long time to see the desert … It asks us to redefine what is beautiful,” reads one attributed to conservationist Terry Tempest Williams. “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling,” reads another, a revised quote from early 1900s author Margaret Lee Runbeck.
The cottage sleeps three, with a modern bathroom and full kitchen. Shelves are stocked with books, many eclectic and out-of-print themed on self-help, inspiration and spirituality. The front porch is perfect for reading, enjoying morning coffee or simply sitting. The 500-square-foot covered patio in back reaches into the scrub and cactus, a good place to meditate, practice yoga, barbecue or snooze in a hammock, all while enjoying panoramic views and wildlife.
“I’ve seen mountain lion, desert fox, deer, javelina, bobcat, rattlesnakes, tarantula, Gila monster, coyote, desert tortoise,” said caretaker Amy Langley. “I’ve heard some bobcat screams that will scare the pants off you.”
Sanctuary Cove is also home to many birds including turkey vultures, desert wrens, doves, Gambel’s quail, owls and hummingbirds. A rare elegant trogon was recently spotted, Langley said. As we prepared to call it a night, rustling in nearby brush was a gray pig-like animal — a javelina nicknamed Jorge by Langley. On an early morning hike, I encountered a brown-tailed hawk dining on unlucky prey. The hawk grabbed its breakfast and flew to a rocky ledge.
Balancing high-minded ideals of reflection and spirituality with contemporary culture can be a challenge. As Langley prepared to close the gates the night of our stay, a mother and grown daughter insisted on walking a couple hundred yards to the chapel, smartphone in hand, in pursuit of virtual Pokemon. “That was a first for me,” Langley laughed.
But most visitors come for other reasons. “At the end of the day when the light is fading, when the sun’s going down, the last light, it’s just beautiful,” Langley said. “I’ve had people come out here … they haven’t been here for years and ‘Oh, we just wanted to come back because I had some really powerful times in my life here.’ So there’s something about that mountain that people are very drawn to.”
If You Go…
SANCTUARY COVE: 8001 N. Scenic Drive, Tucson; http://www.sanctuarycove.org or 520-744-2375. Free admission. Open daily sunrise to sunset year-round. Rental cottage rates vary by season. Easy to moderate hiking. Watch for thorns, rattlesnakes, heat.